Writing versus real life

There are many reasons I spend so much butt time at the keyboard, as poet/novelist Charles Bukowski once compressed the practice.

I’ve examined some of them elsewhere, but what I’m circling back to today is the necessity of bringing some kind of order to the seeming chaos of what happens to each of us in “everyday life,” at least through the lenses of my own encounters.

What emerges is hardly objective, no matter my training in objective journalism. If anything, I lean on the hopeful side of history. The side we see as progress, even in the face of the clouds of doom.

Long ago I crossed a threshold where I couldn’t move forward without drawing on so much that had accumulated before then. I think of it as turning the compost, to give it air and enrichen future crops, worms and all. Yes, those blessed red wigglers. Or wrigglers, depending on your spelling.

Am I self-deluded? Or is my practice of writing one of prayer, even in the face of so much hopelessness?

What is life, anyway, apart from what we experience subjectively?

So here we are, all the same.

Keep writing, those of you in this vein. No matter the outcome.


It doesn’t always have to be spectacular

A fringe of intense red in swampy ground is often a vanguard of the changing foliage.

Let me be honest and admit that the most amazing fall foliage I’ve seen was in 1970 in the Susquehanna Valley of New York and neighboring Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how it would stack up today, if I had a way of reviving the actual color, but the experience was unlike any before or since.

I was fresh out of college – free of being cooped up on campus and indoors. I had my own wheels and a job that had me free by midafternoon, when the angular sunlight was kicking in. And the local forests blended the species of New England with those of the middle Appalachians. What I had known before was Ohio and Indiana, without the big foothills that propped the forests up before my eyes like giant canvases or, from the crests, arrayed them below me like vast quilts punctuated with villages and farm fields and meadows.

I suspect another major factor was a killing frost by late September, which would intensify the color and make, officially, Indian summer. With global warming, that frost has been delaying until all of the leaves have fallen.

All the same, living in New England for nearly half of my life now, I recognize how profoundly the autumn change strikes the region. My in-depth reflections and accompanying photos from New Hampshire are found in the archives of my Chicken Farmer blog. Do go there, if you can. The posts and slideshows appear in the New England Spirit category from August through October 2013.

What I’m now encountering is Coastal Downeast Maine, with its own variations. The forest is largely evergreen, which of course stays green. But it does provide a solid background for the deciduous trees as they change.

Having written that, I encounter an early morning drive across stretches where everything is perfect. The foliage is prime, a full range of the palette, nothing holding back. The temperature’s still chill, so maybe they’ve already had that hard frost up here. Better yet, the sunlight’s brilliant buttery and straight-on, rather than overhead, illuminating the leaves from the side facing me.

It reminds me of other “oh, wow!” epiphanies in northern New England that no doubt would equal or even surpass the year further south that set the standard.

So here’s a taste of how it happens around here.

The trees don’t all change color at the same time.
Evergreens do provide a strong background.
A few dramatic splashes.
It’s not always the panoramic view that counts.
On the other hand, when you’re faced with this at a bend in the road, how can you not be awed?

One day, October

1, the hokku

Ripe orange descending
And then the sharp scythe new moon
With her consort, Venus


2, the long version

Orange-fruit globe ascending
Silvery lakes between fog-wisped forests
Many miles intervening

Same orange glop descending
And then the sharp scythe new moon
With her consort, Venus

Full moon rising

Refined Japanese, I’m told, would gather with sake to watch the full moon rise. First there’s only the crown of the head, and then the brow and cheeks and chin before the moon lifts altogether in the air. The passage is both slow and fleet, maybe five minutes, if that.

The event would be celebrated with the writing of hokku on the spot.

Here’s how it happened one summer night in Eastport, looking over Campobello Island. And this is what you get rather than a cocktail or poem.






Bold Coast is an apt description

While Eastport and its neighboring towns are technically on Fundy Bay, they’re sheltered from the open ocean. Not so for much of Lubec and Cutler to our south, where the shoreline on the open Atlantic rivals anything Acadia has to offer. It helps to know where the trailheads and parking are, though. Here are some views from the trails in the Maine state public lands in Cutler.

Best of all, there was no crowd. Just me and a young couple who were planning to land one of the five primitive campsites at the far end of the coastal trail. I met only ten other folks in the next five hours, all of them delightful.
So what had been stripping the bark off these trees? My “Scats and Tracks of the Northeast” field guide points to Canada lynx, which leave “chin rubs” like these and live in “dense conifer forests interspersed with rocky ledges and downed timber.”  There are also forest edges nearby where their major prey, snowshoe hare, might be found. 
While this trunk seems to be a natural totem pole.
Look out, below!
Except that pretty soon, the trail’s crossing down there.
A slightly inland loop back crosses many peat moss bogs, where plank boardwalks are a necessity.

The lighthouses around Eastport are rather modest

Unlike the two most photographed and visited lighthouses around here – East Quoddy on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, and West Quoddy in Lubec, Maine, both of which have been featured here at the Barn – the remaining lighthouses I encounter locally are small-scale. They’re beacons, all right, but to call them houses may push the definition.

You be the judge. Here they are.

Cherry Island Light, New Brunswick, is the one we see most clearly. It’s an 18-foot-tall tower with a white flash every five seconds. As a lighthouse, it was first built in 1824.
And at night it does this.
Deer Point, New Brunswick, is a 20-foot tall tower with a two-second red flash every 10 seconds. The famed Old Sow, the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere and second largest in the world, is just off its shore.
Facing Deer Island, the Dog Island Light in Eastport flashes white/red every five seconds. As you can see, it’s no longer a house, much less manned.
The Pendleberry Lighthouse, or St. Andrews North Point Light, in New Brunswick is glimpsed here from Robbinston, just up the Maine shoreline from Eastport.
A “sparkplug” or “wedding cake” design, the Lubec Channel Light  can be seen framed by the bridge from Lubec to Campobello Island from points in Eastport, though never this distinctly. I shot this in South Lubec, where it stands 53 feet above Mean High Tide and emits a flashing white signal every six seconds.
Whitlock Mills Light on the St. Croix River in Calais is the northernmost light in Maine. It’s on private property, and I’m grateful to the owner who allowed me access. The second tower has both a bell and a foghorn. I find this 25-foot tower, despite its small size, particularly charming.

There are times it’s taking me all day to write three sentences

That’s not the way it used to be, not when I was younger and could dash things off in the flush of inspiration, but it is what I’ve encountered revising my last two books.

It’s not even Wes McNair’s advice to write 400 good words every day. Not unless one of those sentences is an over-the-top wonder of 250 to 300 words.

The turtle pace here seems to arise when I’m trying to weave some new material into an existing draft, making it connect on two sides seamlessly. It’s not just the craft of fine writing, actually, but also the thinking more deeply about the unseen significance of the subject at hand.  What, exactly, is beneath the surface before us?

Of course, as a writer, this pace also has me wondering if I’ve simply used up all the easy stuff and left the bigger challenges for my senior years.

Any suggestions?

Chickens and the meaning of life, chapter whatever

A couple of incidents regarding my daughter’s chickens have me thinking about human affairs.

Her hens were increasingly picking on one another and squabbling until an incident with a neighbors’ dog posed a terror. In response, they instinctively banded together, including their otherwise useless rooster. For weeks after, their antisocial behavior was transformed, focused on a common enemy.

A year later, the same thing happened when a red tail hawk picked off two of the hens in the yard.

That leads to the question:

Do we humans really need some villain, however small, to make our own lives meaningful?

We see it in politics, for sure. And in sports. As for personal development and ethical living?

I am convinced we need to keep an eye on Satan, in whatever garb, but also need to be careful we don’t start “preaching for sin,” as early Quakers cautioned. The fact is that in fiction it is much easier to create a believable bad guy than a good one.

So even secular novelists must make sure to avoid exclusivity in their vision.

We also need to keep another eye on the Light and its leadings. Otherwise, well, we’d still be chickens at the mercy of foxes and weasels.